Talking to Your Teen About Mental Health

Adolescence is a pivotal developmental time in a person’s life. Hormones that cause mood swings, along with outside social factors, can affect a teen’s emotional and physical well-being.

Even in the best situations, teenagers are not always eager to share details of their lives, especially when it comes to their feelings. And while caregivers may not have a clear picture, one thing that is clear is the importance of recognizing mental health struggles.

“It is essential to normalize conversations about mental health so teens can receive the care and support they need,” says Melissa Brown, PsyD, a therapist at UPMC PinnacleHealth Psychological Associates. “They may not feel heard or understood and sometimes a mental health disorder can be masked by the stereotypical moodiness of a teenager.”

What Is a Mood Disorder?

A wide range of conditions affect moods, thoughts, and behaviors. When a person’s emotional state is distorted and interferes with their ability to function, it is defined as a mood disorder.

Mood disorders often begin in the adolescent years, which can be compounded by a lack of engagement with the adults in their lives. Teenagers often prefer to talk to their friends rather than their parents when things are not going well.

Common mental health disorders among teens include:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Panic disorder.
  • Anorexia.
  • Bulimia.

When teens suffer in silence, they often turn their anger or sadness inward. Some teens choose to cope with emotional pain by inflicting self-harm or participating in risky behaviors.

“We see too many adolescents displaying dangerous behaviors to escape from troubling situations or feelings,” says Dr. Brown. “Cutting, abusing substances, or engaging in reckless sexual activity are destructive behaviors and intervention is critical.”

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Help Is Available

Treatment for mental health disorders depends upon the diagnosis and individual. Often counseling or talk therapy is an effective way to help teens identify and manage stress. Certain medications work to reduce anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. When medication is combined with therapy, the outcomes are highly successful and teens feel more in control of their moods and behaviors.

Whether they need additional support during a specific life challenge or ongoing care for a mental health disorder, help is available. It begins by starting the conversation.

Sometimes just listening to your teen and not offering advice can get them to communicate. For many, simply admitting there is a problem is a huge step in the right direction.

A school guidance counselor, primary care provider, or other mental health professional may offer additional resources and support.

“When we can educate and promote healthy interventions, we can at times prevent severe mental health outcomes, including suicide,” says Dr. Brown. “Providing multiple levels of support is ideal for teens and may include personnel in the school and community settings.”

Identifying the Risks

Lifestyle choices and other habits can positively or negatively impact an existing situation. Getting the recommended amount of sleep, exercising, and eating well supports emotional health as much as physical health.

An entire generation is growing up in a virtual world that can promote body image issues, bullying, unhealthy comparisons with peers, and an ongoing stream of negative messages or images. Social media was meant to connect people, but it creates more of a division and studies have proved the negative effects it has on adolescents and their mental health. Encourage your teens to disconnect from their social media, especially at night.

Like many other health issues, genetics, family history, and environment play a role in mental health disorders. Recognizing the signs of mental illness can help you get the right help early. If you notice any of the following, it’s time to have a talk with your teen and a professional:

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.
  • Irritability or hostility.
  • Feeling guilty or worthless.
  • Restlessness or feeling slowed down.
  • Consistently feeling hopeless, empty, on the verge of tears.
  • Change in sleep patterns.
  • Low energy.
  • Sadness.
  • Isolation and avoiding others.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Change in appetite.
  • Unhealthy relationship with food or exercise.
  • Self-harm behaviors, such as cutting.
  • Thoughts of suicide.
  • Smoking and/or alcohol and/or drug use.
  • Risky or destructive behavior.
  • Rapid or extreme mood changes.
  • Obsessive or unrealistic thoughts.
  • Hearing or seeing things that don’t exist.

Mental health screenings are a routine part of many childhood and adolescent annual checkups. But mental health issues don’t follow a schedule. If any of these symptoms last for several weeks or months and interfere with everyday life, don’t ignore them or think they will go away.

“Our mental health should never be dismissed as a passing mood,” says Dr. Brown. “We wouldn’t wait to seek medical attention for the flu or a broken bone. The same is true for addressing any emotional condition.”

Learn more about Behavioral and Mental Health Services at UPMC.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.